The Happy Uncertain
I’ve listened to many others’ belief statements, and I know I should always tip the pizza guy, that it is best to attend the funeral, and that barbeque is next to godliness. They sound plausible, and sincere, and very very wise. The more I listen to these essays, the more I realize I believe all, and therefore don’t know what to believe. This makes me uneasy, and moreover I believe you are uneasy about hearing my This-I-Believe essay. You don’t want my belief intruding on your embattled existing beliefs. Though you may be nominally curious, do you really welcome such a confrontation? Or, well, you do, but you don’t. I mean you are uncertain, as I am. It is, therefore, my ironically certain belief that I believe in uncertainty.
You might disallow this as “cute” posturing, just intellectual gymnastics. Maybe. But how can you be sure? The truth is this: Uncertainty is the most honest and honorable belief. Heisenberg discovered this truth in physics, and Godel in Math: uncertainty is a necessity.
One effect of radical uncertainty is that it makes us humble. Right and noble as This-I-Believe essays are, they are credos, assertions written from the strongest first person “I”. The writers wax assertive in their beliefs, and in the process emphasize their identities and uniquely localized personalities, to the extent that a scroll thorough the list of This-I-Believe essays is a kind of assault on our own fragile identities, a wrestling with otherness. Anyone who fears others—is anthropophobic or sociophobic—will avoid listening to these essays.
The essential concept behind the essay, as first published by Michel de Montaigne in 1580, is that experience held by one should be true for others—that if I’ve learned something that is true, it is probably true for others, too. During the northern European renaissance when Montaigne developed this representative heuristic, it was a new and radical realization, because it emphasized individuality, suggested that our unique experiences mattered, diverged from the epistemology of authority that had demanded acquiescence from before the medieval age.
The truth is that just because something is true for you, doesn’t really make it necessarily true for me. The premise behind these essays is just that, a premise, more of a what-if than a QED. The last thing I want is someone telling me what I absolutely must believe. I believe—in fact, I know—that most of the things that have gone wrong in the world have come from people who were absolutely and steadfastly and even honorably absolute in belief. Absolutes are to be avoided as death and taxes. It is good to doubt, to hesitate and consider, to come to judgment after uncertainty.
Let us embrace uncertainty, learn how to decide or choose within the context of the muddy, the gradations of gray, the vague and illimitable unknown. Life and hope inhere in the willingness to be informed of other truths. Most of the time it is best to be uncertain. Maybe.